The Beginnings of my Story
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s interest in the publication of this book is linked to the larger project the Institute is supporting and which is being conducted in Burundi, titled ‘Documentation of Past Violations in Burundi: A contribution to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’. This book is an attempt to add to the documentation of the critical but unrecognised contribution made by Burundian women during and after the violence that gripped the country for more than a decade.
The civil war that followed the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye from 1993 to 2006 is estimated to have caused the loss of more than 300 000 lives. It created an unprecedented flow of refugees across the Great Lakes Region and forced hundreds of thousands of people into internally displaced persons camps. But, above all, the civil war adversely affected millions of people who were exposed to inhumanity, pain and suffering. Many people still live with the memories, trauma and pain of the war today. Throughout history, Burundian women have played a critical role in peacebuilding. However, their role remains largely invisible. They remain the unsung heroines of Burundi’s journey towards peace and development. This book is an attempt at ensuring that their contribution is documented, acknowledged and honoured.
Elles. Un homage aux oubliées pays tribute to the courageous Burundian women who, in the midst of the chaos caused by hatred, destruction, looting, ethnic violence, blood shedding and vengeance during the civil war in 1993, stood tall and kept their heads above water. Through their actions these women, mostly from modest backgrounds, gave new hope to their communities and to a nation that was collapsing. Burundian women sheltered and hid people who were threatened by killers; they took in orphans and protected abandoned children, and they gave refuge to men and women uprooted by violence. Others encouraged their communities to stay strong and to resist the ethnic divisions that were rife across the country. Women led the way and taught the nation how to remain human in the face of evil. The stories in this book illustrate that Burundian women played the role of mothers and fathers during the period of crisis; without them the war effort could not have taken place. Women fought to preserve peace within their communities and tried hard to rebuild and to restore cohesion in a society whose social fabric had been torn apart. We should also mention that the Burundian civil war could not have been fought without the involvement of women. They looked after the next generation (the children) while men went to war. They were the cooks in the barracks, and the porters, and they took over all roles performed by men during peace time.
These specific contributions need to be acknowledged as a force without which the war could not have been fought.
One story is that of Yvonne Ryakiye from Musaga. For two years her community was divided along ethnic lines. One day she decided that the situation needed to change. The two groups were living separated by a small river, one group in Musaga, the other in Busoro. Initially, Ryakiye, a Hutu, simply wanted to visit her old neighbours and friends from the Tutsi community in Musaga. Coming from Busoro where most Hutus lived, and going to see someone in Musaga, where most Tutsis stayed, was a risky endeavour. She could easily be considered a spy for a Hutu armed group. This suspicion was enough for her to be sentenced to death, a punishment which would be rapidly carried out. Despite the risk, Ryakiye made arrangements and found a way to visit her friends. A few days later, the friends from Musaga came to visit her. The connection was established and trust was restored. Very soon other initiatives aimed at restoring peace and cohesion between Musaga and Busoro were made. This small step by an ordinary Burundian woman made a big difference to the two communities. It symbolised the birth of a movement of women that would later transform the relationships between the groups from Musaga and Busoro. As a result of these efforts, schools and markets reopened and life returned to normal. Yvonne Ryakiye was selected by the regional committee of the Nobel Prize for Peace among the 1000 Burundian women who contributed to peace and reconciliation in the country and for being a ‘Pillar of Ubuntu’.
The documentation of women’s testimonies is of importance for a number of reasons: The stories in this book constitute a part of the documentation of the truth about a violent past that has led to the myriad of problems Burundi is still grappling with. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is continuing its quest to uncover the truth, a book containing testimonies like this one complements that process and contributes to the formation of a more inclusive public record of the past. It is also an acknowledgement and an honouring of the many unsung and voiceless heroes who contributed to the peace process by risking their lives to save others or to bring peace to war-torn communities. Acknowledging that stories have the power to connect and unite, this book also seeks to contribute to the difficult process of healing a society that has been marred by decades of violence. It aims to reconcile people, communities, generations and the nation as a whole by speaking truth to power. These stories are also invaluable lessons for current and future generations on how to lead during periods of conflict and how to remain resilient in the face of adversity, evil and violence. It is hoped that these stories will inspire and positively motivate people around the world to become active and engaged citizens.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is immensely thankful to the Robert Bosch Foundation which provided the financial support for the ‘Documentation of Past Violations in Burundi: A contribution to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ project, of which this book is a part.
Senior Project Leader: Great Lakes Region
Institute for Justice and Reconciliation